Before she was known as the mother of modern dance, Isadora Duncan was a single mother of two young children, balancing her creative life with family life in Paris. In 1913, both children died in a freak accident, and Duncan’s world split forever into before and after. Her deep grief, mental unraveling, and struggle to regain her sanity are the basis for Amelia Gray’s new historical novel, Isadora.
When novelist Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney (The Nest) chose Isadora for our spring reading preview, she called it “breathtaking and brilliant.” Kirkus Reviews declared it, “a novel equal to its larger-than-life protagonist.” Gray’s literary style — once praised by The New York Times as uniquely “bizarre” — has earned her faithful readers, including our bookseller Halley Parry, who thinks this book has the mainstream appeal to introduce Gray to new readers. “Isadora is a masterpiece,” says Halley. “I have never encountered a work of historical fiction so inventive. It’s hard to believe Amelia wasn’t alive then, watching Isadora’s every move and recording her thoughts. Every sentence has enough strangeness, enough beauty, to carry an entire novel. Amelia Gray has an astonishing talent.”
We can’t wait to see what you think about it! On that note, here’s an interview between the two, bookseller and author. Enjoy.
HP: Let’s start at the beginning. What are your writing rituals, if any? What distracts you most?
AG: My rituals change with the times. Lately I do my best writing if I can manage to not look at the news for an hour or two. The real world tends to intrude more on fiction than on other forms, where the world tends to inform and shape. I wrote part of Isadora while working in advertising, and it was important to clear the morning of all thoughts of modernity before letting things intrude again so I could sell cars and sausage.
HP: This novel is a departure from your past books, isn’t it? Isadora’s life and tragedy are obviously alluring — but what else inspired you to go this direction and write about this subject?
AG: In some ways it’s very much of the world of my previous books, which occupy themselves with grief and love and existential concerns. The frame is very different, the shape of it, but in the way the character and action are secondary to truth and emotion there’s a lot of similarity. I was interested in Isadora and the story of her children, who died suddenly in an accident. As I worked, I became more interested in larger ideas, the cyclical nature of history, the false sense of the unique in our own lives, in my own life.
HP: How much of the book was researched versus imagined?
AG: I wanted to start with a functional reality, which meant I needed to get details about the locations and era close to their true nature out of interest in the time, and I wanted to get Isadora’s work right out of respect for her and her work, and for those who study and practice her methods, but I also didn’t want to necessarily bind myself to the details of the location or era, as I’ve found that kind of fidelity can sometimes sap the lightness out of fiction for me as a reader.
I ended up employing somewhat strange research methods — I would sometimes quote directly from her autobiography My Life, which is believed to be largely fabricated. I liked to spend a lot of time trying to figure out what kind of diaper situation the children would have, practical concerns like that. I liked looking at postcard pictures of the locations, trying to sort out how I would feel in such a scene. In the end all fiction comes down to the author looking out over the carnage of their own imagination, and the practice of writing historical fiction was no different.
HP: Did you dance at all while writing this book?
AG: I took two lessons from Mary Sano at her studio of Duncan Dancing in San Francisco. It was the first real instructional dance experience I’ve had since I was five and was informed that I was impressively loud running across the studio floor. Mary likes to take a holistic approach to dance instruction, and each lesson included some discussion of classical figures, observation of sculpture from various eras including the Tanagra figures, which Isadora used as inspiration for a series of subtle movements. We worked through a few of Isadora’s dances, including a mazurka and a waltz. I’m very loud still, turns out.
One interesting thing about writing the book was that it actually takes place during a time in Isadora’s life when she wasn’t doing much dancing. That took some of the technical pressure off me, but also gave me a chance to get into the head of an artist during a creative dry spell, something all artists know in one form or another.
HP: Do you ever worry about being haunted by the spirit of Isadora?
AG: I mean, after being haunted by the spirit of Isadora for four years, I’m not sure I’d notice. I’d love to have a conversation with her over champagne and strawberry tarts. I’d be more worried to be haunted by the spirit of Max [her brother-in-law], who ended up becoming a real fanatic.
HP: Your new TV gig — writing for the Netflix series Maniac — sounds exciting. How’s that going? Does writing for television use different creative muscles than writing a novel?
AG: It’s a lot of fun. We’re just breaking the last episodes now, and I’m finding my favorite part of each day is spent in the writer’s room just thinking up situations for our characters to get into. A lot of the muscles are the same, I’m finding. No matter what I’m writing, I like to start with what would be true of the character and the world in that moment, what would ring true of a situation. Writing seems to work best when it’s fighting to get at some truth.
HP: And finally, we always ask: favorite thing about indie bookstores?
AG: The distance between the retail buyer and seller is so slim, sometimes they share a desk or are the same person; that access means that unusual work finds its way to the shelf much more readily, that the whims and passions of the booksellers are more likely to be indulged. There’s nothing like the feeling of starting a book which was hand-sold to me as a life-changer. It adds another layer of connection to the experience of reading, which is already so personal and absorbing and transportive. Also the climate control is usually better. They keep those big bookstores like walk-in freezers.
New fiction hitting shelves today:
Isadora by Amelia Gray